It might seem like hiking the Appalachian Trail is simply getting up in the morning, putting on your backpack, hike until break time, snack, hike until lunch, eat, hike until afternoon break, snack, hike until dinner, eat, find a spot to camp, set up the tent, enjoy a few hours rest, climb into the tent, sleep until morning and start all over again. In one sense, this is precisely the routine. However, the journey is not that simple. The strategy for each day’s journey is critical for success.
Let me provide an actual example. I got sick on the trail just south of Marion, Virginia and took two days off the trail in Marion to recover from an intestinal virus. Getting back on the trail I knew I had 123.2 miles to Pearisburg, Virginia where my sister planned to meet me for some home cooked food and a comfortable bed. I needed a strategy for hiking this mileage.
First, I needed to estimate the number of days for the journey. If at all possible I wanted to reach my sister’s company in a week. If I wanted a seven-day trip, I would need to trek 17.6 miles each day. To reach Pearisburg in 6 days I would have to average 20.53 miles per day. And if I wanted to try to arrive in 5 days, I would need to maintain a pace of 2
4.64 miles every twenty-four hours. I quickly eliminated the 5-day trip not thinking that I could not hike that far for five consecutive days especially after being sick for two days.
Second, I pulled out my AT Guidebook and began to map out shelters, campsites, and towns as potential places to stay each night. Unfortunately, there was not a shelter every 17.6 miles. I decided to plot a trail of no more than 18.5 miles a day. With that restriction, I found shelter at 16.7 miles for day one; 17.9 for day two, 15.1 for day three; 17.9 for day four; then only 14.0 on day five (the next shelter would have demanded a 23.8 mile day) 18.4 on day six; 15 miles on day seven; and 8.2 miles on day eight. This seemed very doable. There was a resupply town at the end of day two (Atkins, VA), but I would still have to buy and carry enough food to last me five and half days to reach Pearisburg. But this would be my conservative itinerary.
Third, I developed a more aggressive agenda and plotted a map to arrive in six days (averaging about 21 miles each day. Even the first day presented a dilemma. I could hike 16.7 miles to a campsite or push another 6.3 miles to a shelter. Still being queasy from the stomach bug, I plotted the 16.7 miles knowing I would have to make up the mileage during the next five days. Day two would demand 21 miles to Davis Path Camp. The third day would require a 19.9 mile trek to Chestnut Knob Shelter. Day four would have to be a 21.9 mile hike to Bland, VA. The fifth day was going to be a challenging 23.9 miles to Dismal Creek campsite. Day six into Pearisburg was another long hike of 19.8 miles.
Fourth, I committed myself to a flexible mindset and an adaptable agenda. Rain could determine pace, sickness could delay my hike again, a fall could always demand a change of plans, and the possibility of taking a wrong turn and spending hours getting back on the AT was not out of the question. So I decided to hike the first day and then evaluate the itinerary for day two.
Fifth, I was still not 100% on day one, but I did not want to delay my adventure, so I returned to Fox Creek, Virginia and started up the trail. I had five viable camping options depending on my health. There was a shelter just 3.3 miles up the trail; a trail (0.7 miles) to a campsite at mile marker 6.5; a town at 8.5 miles (not including the 2.6 mile hitch into Troutdale); another shelter at 12.4 miles; a tent site at 16.7 (my prime target); and a third shelter at 23.0 miles. I decided to hike until my body said stop and adjust my plans from there.
This planning was a typical and important aspect of my hike. Plotting out places for resupply was critical as well. Water was plentiful most of the time, but the plan for each day included the best spot to stop for water and the careful rationing of water along the way.
Life on the Appalachian Trail is a simple one and the routine is much the same each day. Walking in creation and enjoying the fresh air of the trail was the order of the day. But this simplicity demanded strategy and planning. Life after the Appalachian Trail is often too complex but even when I am able to simplify the agenda, planning and strategic thinking are still vital to effectiveness.
By the way, I was able to fulfill my more aggressive agenda and arrived in Pearisburg in six days. There were some other aggressive agendas that I did not fulfill, but God was always faithful to provide the strength and the direction along the way.
In case you want to read more – check out my ebook (Hike It Forward) at Amazon.com.